Arctic Winds & Sand Blizzard At Benone Beach - April 24th 2017

There have been little in the way of convective weather events this year so far, in fact, my log book shows that Autumn 2016 into Winter and early Spring 2017 have been the most quiet convective period I have ever experienced. That being said a low risk set-up suddenly materialized on the models. Low pressure and a massive Arctic airmass in an unstable Nly flow was advecting S heading for northern UK. Upper air temps of -35C (lower over Scotland) and cold air moving over a warmer ocean generating several troughs in an atmosphere with several hundred CAPE indicated cold air mass showers and storms were possible. CAPE values were low end however lapse rates were good and the convective maps indicated good deep layer shear. The result would be fast moving convective showers of hail and snow on high ground with a risk of isolated thunderstorms, the shear meant cells could be organised with convective outlooks mentioning a chance of cold air funnel clouds and even waterspouts. The N and NW coasts of Ireland/N. Ireland would be the prime hunting ground so a chase was quickly arranged.

Dungannon photographer John Fagan and I agreed to meet at the coast then Nigel McFarland from AerialvisionNI said he would join us too so it looked like it was going to be an interesting night. The positives were the CAPE, however the negatives were strong winds, moonless skies and CAPE coinciding with night time hours. My entire reason for going was for storm clouds and lightning, it would have been nice to have the moon up to illuminate the cells however I decided that ambient and manmade light from the coast would help to some degree. My greatest concern was the wind, GFS was indicating raw 40-50mph winds impacting us from the N, and being on the N coast we would be feeling the full impact of those, I was beginning to wonder if we would even be able to set-up a tripod at all, however I decided to take the risk, I was sure I would figure something out, I was eager to get chasing so there was no turning back.

I filled a flask, bought a few snacks, wrapped up in three layers of clothes, filled up the diesel with more than I needed incase I had to keep the engine and heat running the entire time to combat the cold. The air was already bitter in Maghera and the temp was dropping by the minute during daylight hours, so that combined with 50 mph N winds would be a nasty experience indeed, I decided I would not be standing out in that, it would be extremely bad for my health so my plan was to stay in the van then get out for a quick exposure and back in again. I left Maghera at 20.00 and encountered several showers of snow and hail on my way N. I arrived at the coast and from a high vantage point near Castlerock watched a big line of convective showers over the sea about to impact the coastline, black curtains of hail fell under their gust fronts and the precip was lit a subtle pink by the lowering sun. The ocean below was green and even from my distant vantage point I could see large white horses all over the ocean, it was obvious at a glance that there were serious winds blowing across the surface.

I arrived on Benone beach before 21.00 and parked on the sand covered road which merged into the beach. It was clear upon arrival that I would not be doing any tripod mounted exposures tonight. The wind was very strong and the sand was airborne!, I mean it was blowing across the surface of the beach and through the air as if an invisible man with a powerhose was at work. I opened the door and it slammed back hard almost crushing my ankle against the frame. The wind blown sand impressed me so much, I normally detest the wind, and now as a drone pilot I detest it even more, I cant fly in strong winds, it ruins night shoots, it can make you sick being exposed to it. The only wind I love is in the form of tornadoes, vortex events, blizzards and blowing sand events like this. I partially put down the passenger side window, attached the 50mm F/1.8 lens to my DSLR and began recording video before last light faded. I don't think I have ever seen sand blowing as fast as I did here, it was amazing to watch, the entire beach looked alive, it was heaving, breathing, dynamic, stirring, blowing, whipping, it looked exciting yet eerie in equal measure.

John and Nigel arrived, John parked beside me so we could talk and Nigel jumped into the passenger seat and it was from here where we spent the next few hours. During the strongest gusts it was difficult to open the van doors and even with the window at a sheltered angle and partially down so we could talk with John I was still getting sand grains blowing inside the van, in no time the dash and seats were covered, I was also getting it in my mouth, ears, nose and eyes, I could feel my eyes turning bloodshot when I tried to clear the sand from them. We all decided we would not be setting up camera gear outside, unless there was lightning the gear would be staying protected. Sand blowing at that speed would easily ruin or gear and lenses so it simply wasn't worth it, this was my primary concern about this shoot however it was this very factor which would actually make the night for me. The wind howled outside, sand whipped the windows and occasional episodes of hail stones hammered the beach.

We all chatted and had a great time while scanning the skies, I switched on my window mounted Go Pro and did a video time lapse of the sky over the sea. During dusk the sky was very dark with heavy convective clouds making their way from ocean to land, we could see the convection growing, towers against the dark twilight sky, then the clouds parted to reveal white towers and compact anvils illuminated by the twilight which was beautiful to watch, I managed to capture these on the time lapse video. I quickly opened the van door and took this image with the 10mm F/2.8 lens hand held, the light was so low my image came out black, so I had to use ISO3200 - which is a no no using my camera due to noise - and a shutter of 1/50th of a second, I'm a little embarrassed to post it however I had to catch something on camera for the record, I cleaned the noise using lightroom. The image captures the light and mood well, you can also see the white tops of the cells above the low level cloud.

We stayed here until after midnight however we never witnessed any lightning, possibly due to issues with lift or the CAPE being too low, the convection was plentiful however it was also low topped, however in a way I'm glad there wasn't any sparks for I know full well I would have been out shooting it and would likely ruin my DSLR. Nigel called it a night as he had an early rise in the morning so John and I stayed for another hour watching the skies from inside the van then John called it a night too. I gathered my gear together, turned the van around, and began driving back along the road with the intention of going home when the blowing sand once again got my attention, it looked spectacular, even more severe than earlier, it was like being engulfed in a brown blizzard, I simply couldn't let this pass. I ended up staying here until 02.30 filming this event, parked on the road, driving forward a little, turning around, then filming again. I had my Go Pro running however my best video was with the 600D and 50mm F/1.8 lens wide open. This was facing along the road with my back to the wind, I filmed hand held through the windscreen, this was probably 40mph. You really had to be here, when I stay the winds were strong I don't mean there were strong then eased back to a breeze, then picked up again. This was sustained strong winds, there was no let-up at all, constant Arctic winds lashing the beach and blowing sand continuously, it really was a thrill to watch at this hour of the night.

This was in excess of 50mph winds, when the cells came on shore the mean wind field became severely enhanced, this was like sand from a power hose, the airborne sand in the headlight beams looked extremely dramatic.

Van turned around, I couldn't tell were the road ended and the beach began, this was facing N into the Arctic winds, this view through the DSLR LCD screen made me feel like I was on the surface of the moon. Sand whipped across the beach in streamers, like a mass of phantom snakes swirling.

Same location, a few min's later when convection arrived, this was 100% pure Arctic winds hitting, there were no trees or mountains here to block the wind or reduce its speed, this is straight from the ocean and onto the beach, raw, severe, and in your face. The sand blew so fast it felt like a dream, you need to see the video to appreciate what I'm saying, these are all stills from the footage. This severe wind blast never stopped, it just kept buffeting the sand like this for what seemed like forever, this moment was the highlight of the night for me!, feeling satisfied I drove home and made it back for 03.15.

The next morning I had a good look at the van, one side of it was fairly clean, however the side facing the N was plastered in caked sand. The interior suffered obvious battle scars. Sand covered much of the dash, was inside the air vents, around the buttons and dials, inside the window gaps at the door, the electric windows now make a cracking sound when used. The steering was covered, gear stick, seats and floor.

If this was the result of a few brief moments of putting the window partially down I would hate to see what would have happen if I had left the doors open for any length of time. I gave the dash a good brush however I can't get all the sand out of the corners and the hoover isn't strong enough to lift it all from the carpet so I might need to give it a more serious clean in the near future.

No great cloud structures or photogenic skies captured during this trip however the sand blizzard made the night well worth it, especially to experience sand blowing at that speed at that hour of the night made it all the more special. For this reason this night was more than worthy of documenting in the 2017 chase report section.

Hand held DSLR footage of the blowing sand captured during last light in the evening and again at 02.30 in the morning at Benone beach. It's worth watching the footage all the way through, especially the section near the end which reminds me of blowing smoke from a Hammer horror movie set.

Window mounted Go Pro Hero 4 video time lapse of the squally showers and convection arriving on the beach during dusk with several towers appearing near the end. May is just around the corner and solar heating is now getting strong so I'm hopeful we will get an increase in storm chances as the weeks advance, I'm very much looking forward to the return of a very unstable Sly flow. Thanks very much for reading.


Martin McKenna

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